How to Make MILSATCOM More Resilient and Affordable

6 August 2014, 10:30 a.m. EDT
by Lawrence Garrett, AIAA web editor

MILSATCOM_Panel_5Aug14

Participants in the panel discussion, "MILSATCOM: Current Challenges and Future Opportunities," Tuesday afternoon at the AIAA Space and Astronautics Forum and Exposition (SPACE 2014), in San Diego.

A panel of industry experts provided an overview of the current challenges and future opportunities in military satellite communications Tuesday afternoon at the AIAA SPACE 2014 Forum in San Diego.

Referencing the forum’s theme -- “Connecting, Protecting, and Enhancing a Global Society” -- retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Larry D. James, the panel moderator, said, “In many ways MILSATCOM addresses each one of those things.” James, the deputy director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and an AIAA Associate Fellow, also noted that coalition forces in Afghanistan and Iraq relied on commercial communication satellites, “not those purely MILSATCOM capabilities.”

“Commercial satellite communications played an important role in how we communicated,” he said.

Framing part of the challenge ahead, Robert Aalseth, chief of the Advanced Concepts Division at the Air Force's MILSATCOM Systems Directorate, said that although people often speak of the MILSATCOM enterprise, “it’s sort of a misnomer, in the way we plan, the way we resource, the way we build and operate our military satellite communications systems today.”

"We don’t really have an enterprise," he said. "We have a consortium of different programs and systems that comprise different discrete networks and we have a process in which we provision that communication to war fighters, but in a very static way -- maybe in a very antiquated way.”

Looming budget crises might be enough to challenge industry to come together again and manage as an enterprise, “to govern this thing we call MILSATCOM, as a whole,” he said, adding that “it’s not a technical problem -- it’s a problem of will, governance, leadership.”

Aalseth cited GPS as a model to follow, calling it the “gold standard for the world on position navigation and timing.” For MILSATCOM, he said, the old way of doing business is not going to work forever and that “it’s on all of us, collectively as a team” to move the ball forward. “It requires an enterprise-governance approach,” he said.

How some of the MILSATCOM challenges could be met from the commercial side was addressed by Skot Butler, vice president of satellite networks and space services at Intelsat General Corp. “Cost is a critical piece going forward,” he said, but it’s “just one element.” Establishing a single authority for SATCOM, he said, might be another potential element. He said efficiencies might be gained “both operationally and financially with a single authority who is charge of the requirements, budgeting and acquisition of these capabilities.”

Butler also said a larger commitment is needed not only from government but from commercial partners. “There are things that can be done when and if commercial becomes a part, an integrated part, of the long-term MILSATCOM architecture," he said.

Improving MILSATCOM “both in terms of affordability and robustness” offers challenges and opportunity, said Scott Lindell, director of business development for military space at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. “We have to find more affordable ways to meet a broader set of capacity requirements, to those disadvantaged users that need to fight the fight in an interference and threat environment,” he said. That will require more adaptable and flexible management of the architecture. “The focus now needs to turn to how do we make ourselves more resilient, how to make ourselves more affordable," Lindell said. "And I think there’s a lot of opportunity to do just that.”

Another company working to meet these MILSATCOM challenges is Boeing, which has focused on how to “leverage commercial practices” and “leverage product line efficiencies on our platforms to decrease the costs,” said Chris Johnson, deputy director of business development for Government Space Systems, a unit of Boeing Space & Intelligence Systems. Recent technology investments by government and industry into “low-cost platform and low-cost launch,” for example, “are going to enable that architecture to meet the resiliency and affordability targets into the future," he said.

To view the entire session, visit AIAA's livestream channel.
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